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Snapshots from Puerto Rico

A couple weeks ago, I decided I couldn't take it anymore.

"It" being this east coast winter. Every time I stepped a toe outside my door, my soul shriveled in pain, recoiling from the very thought of going outside.

And let's be clear, this is how I dress warmly when I venture out. The elements have a job getting past this thing. Even so, I couldn't do it. So, after a needless lecture from a cab driver who lightly reminded me it was still winter, after all, I booked a trip to Puerto Rico, and convinced Marmo to come with me.

Our break was not long, just a few days. But it was long enough to get sunburned, eat something called a Mofongo, drink copious amounts of frou-frou drinks, explore a rainforest, and generally forget that I needed to return home at all.

That is what I call a successful vacay, people. Below are a few highlights from the trip – food included!

Our hotel: El Conquistador in Fajardo

The round-up of drinks...

Just like a Corona ad...Mango and Strawberry daquiri's on Palomino IslandFajardo Sunrise (Tequila, Passoa (local passion fruit liquor), passion fruit juice and guava juice) from La Estacion in Fajardo

Mojitos at the harbor-side bar

After the mojitos featured above, I decided to commandeer a small sea craft and set sail for lands unknown.

But I got hungry, so I weighed anchor and heaved to, to La Estacion in Fajardo. La Estacion is owned and operated by Kevin Roth, originally from Brooklyn and a Culinary Institute of America graduate, and his wife. After many years in NYC and vacationing in Puerto Rico they decided to move to Puerto Rico and open La Estacion. I wonder, being from Brooklyn if Mr. Roth visited Roberta's in Bushwick. The vibe of the restaurants is similar, with ramshackle, garage-like encasements joined together at (what appears to be) random:

The hostess check-in areaThe pool and bar area.

Outdoor eating area

The first time we visited, we ordered the Jumbo Shrimp Pinchos and the Grilled Red Snapper. As Marmo, said, this was enough food for three people, but we handled it pretty well. This place does something special with shrimp. Moist, peppery and tangy these little guys were skewered gems.

Shrimp Pinchos

Our Red Snapper arrived with head attached, charred and flaking, alongside some just-out-of-the-fryer arepa accoutrements:

Red Snapper, wrestled out of the water that very day.

Incredibly pleased, and full, we returned to the restuarant and contemplated a return trip for the next night, this time sampling a Green Papaya Salad and 2 different "Mofongos": BBQ Chicken and Shrimp with Mahi-Mahi.

A Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish. It involves smashing green plantains as you would potatoes, and combining it with a hearty amount of garlic, perhaps some broth and then the chicken, fish, pork or vegetables of your choosing. Ours was served in what looked like a giant wooden Tiki jar and topped with one, long fried yellow plantain.

Green Papaya Salad

Mofongo View #1Mofongo View #2This was my favorite meal of the vacation. The smashed plantains were mushy, gritty, garlicky and packed with all sorts of flavor including chunks of Mahi-Mahi and seasoned shrimp.

And we followed it up with this Banana Fritter.

Marmo and I were very pleased. Very pleased, indeed. And did I mention sunburnt? And lazy? Those too.


Coal-ed Pizza at Arturo's in Greenwich Village

Cold Pizza?  I've never much cared for it.  It actually sort of weirds me out a bit.  You can keep a leftover pizza in the fridge of course, but have the decency to re-heat it if you're going to feed me some.  OHHH...Coal-ed Pizza, you say? - as in, pizza made within the scorching confines of a coal fired brick oven? Now that, is a different story.  Those can be quite good. 

Nonetheless, in New York City nowadays, such a pizza is rare.  As I understand it, you pretty much have to be grandafathered in to be owning/operating a coal fired oven these these days, as the City passed legislation to prohibit the opening of restaurants with coal brick ovens due to health risks.  If only the coal fired oven industry had a bit more lobbying power, we'd have more options in the coal scorched pizza department, but we don't.  And that's ok.  Pizza peeps have adapted; aspiring pizzaiolas looking to achieve Napoletana like glory now use wood or gas (or a combination of both) which has worked out fine for a variety of places.  Besides, that is how most places in Naples do it anyway.

And in light of the foregoing, Elana and I really haven't sampled too many coal burned pizzas, but a good one, like Grimaldi's in BK (or Hoboken), is definitely worth having.  Nonetheless, we've had our share of disappointing experiences when it comes to coal oven pizza, too; both Totonno's and Lombardi's, despite impeccable reputations, were underwhelming experiences.  I'd say Arturro's was somewhere in between - not quite outstanding, but a quality pie that merits future visits.

The scene inside Arturo's is busy; busy with people, staff, decor - you name it.  It has the feel of an institution.  Hardly an inch of wall space is left uncovered, whether it be license plates, old pictures, holiday decorations, or vintage Leroy Neimans covering them, you can keep yourself quite busy by merely taking a look around.  It's a festive, lively joint.  Elana and I order a seafood salad, meatballs and some wine to whet our appetites while we take it all in.  The salad is adequate, but the tightly formed, burgundy sauced meatballs are quite scrumptous and satisfying.  Not much of either is left for our server to clear.

On looks alone, an Arturo's pizza pie scores high points - charred, cheesed, and featuring a sauce with a vibrant red glow, your mouth begins to water by merely looking at it.  We dug in immediately.

The pie eats well, too.  It is fluffy with a noticeable coal char tang and a well made crust.  Elana's bites, even in this loud establishment, can be heard from across the table.  The pie has character, too, as portions of it are more burned/bubbly than others.  It is well cheesed, sauced and close to perfectly cooked; a blistered but chewy consistency.  Bravo.  The pizza's taste, nonetheless, unlike the theme throughout Arturo's, is a bit muted.  There is a slightly bland nature to it all, and Elana and I find ourselves employing the assistance of nearby seasonings (garlic powder being our weapon of choice in this instance) to spruce things up.  Yes, you read that right: garlic powder. Each table comes with a full arsenal of pizza condiments - which I always find suspicious.

While I wait on line for the bathroom, Elana orders some after dinner drinks/digestifs.  I return to discuss the meal, as well as the same day viewing of Zero Dark Thirty.

Elana, being the heady blog superstar that she is, remembers to snap photos of the bathrooms.

Yes, we kid you not, Arturo's bathroom features a bath tub!  You know, in case you ate too much and are in need of a hot, soothing bath to relax your stomach.  This is a first for JohnandElana bathroom reviews.  Personally, I think it's awesome.  Anytime you can leave the bathroom laughing and it's not your fault, that's a win in my book.

I'd have no hesitation in advising others to hit up Arturo's for pizza. The place is fun, the pizza is pretty dang good (although not amazing), and for a coal oven pie, it's one of the better - not best - ones I can think off the top of my head.  Also, any place with the audacity to leave a bathtub in its bathroom is telling you something.  I don't know what that something is, but it's something alright.

Overall experience - Top Gun


C'Mon....Give me a Bacio (kiss)!

Sometimes worlds collide. When this can happen in a way that doesn't involve the alarming effects of gravity literally pulling me down to the ground (or into a wall) and causing me harm, I love it.

It's rare, let me tell you. But sometimes these worlds collide in a most wonderful and advantageous way, as in this case, on which I am about to elaborate.

Many of you know I'm a graphic designer by day (check the About Section, peeps!), and if you haven't figured out by this time that I love food, I will really need to check your pulse.

I work at a studio called Square Root Creative where I am the Creative Director/Graphic designer/Hungriest Person in the Room/Champion Gum Chewer. And at this studio, we had the opportunity to acquire a food client – an ITALIAN food client.

Our client is Perugina, an Italian chocolate producer originally hailing from the beautiful, mountainous Umbrian town of Perugia. Perugia's specialty is truffles and chocolate. I am currently on a one-way flight there.

No! I'm sitting in my apartment.

At Square Root Creative, we had the opportunity to completely redesign the United States Perugina website, featuring as the star, the famous "Baci".

Baci are a chocolate confection produced by Perugina. A truffle-like assembly of dark chocolate ganache coating an inner core of chopped hazelnuts and milk chocolate that is an Italian sweetness party in your mouth. It's like a nutty, chocolate mini-slider.

Eataly recently sponsored an event demonstrating how Baci are made:

The above hazelnuts are awaiting their position on beds of milk chocolate and chopped nuts featured below:

Finally the whole contraption is dipped into tempered dark chocolate:

According to legend Baci was created on Valentine's Day in 1922, and since then has been a traditional Valentine's gift in Italian households.

Since Valentine's Day is tomorrow, and the Perugina site is now live, I thought I would show it off to you all. I worked with a wonderful group of designers, managers and programmers who all contributed to this site. I was also responsible for all of the product photography. All the photos you see in the "Products" section are mine!

So we've got food, Italian food, design, and chocolate. Did you feel the earth shake right then, or was it only me?

Anyway! As an added bonus, the new site offers recipes featuring Perugina products. So for today's post I have recreated the Baci Pancakes (original recipe found here). However, I modified it a bit in my usual fashion. The result was an intensely fluffy, cookie-like pancake with tangy cherries and excellent chocolate hazel flavor. And it was ever-so-slightly healthier. A teeny bit...

What You Need:

1 egg
2/4 cup soy milk (you can use regular milk if you like)
1/2 all purpose cup flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 oats
1/2 cup chopped dried cherries
3 teaspoons sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 chopped Baci*
*Note: the Baci will be easier to chop if they are cold

What To Do:
Mix all the dry ingredients together until they are well combined.

Add in the egg and the soy milk (or regular milk) and mix until a thick batter forms.

Lightly coat a griddle or frying pan with oil or butter and heat until hot.

Drop generous 1/4 cup of batter onto grill per pancake. Brown on one side, then flip and brown other side.

Can be served with syrup, butter or just sprinkled with powered sugar.


Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins For Oscar Wilde

We are back with another edition of Eat This Book!

As I mentioned in my last Eat This Book post (featuring lardo pizza), I like to read. And I especially like to read authors that work in nonsensical, humorous banter that is seemingly off topic.

Enter Oscar Wilde, who might be the champion of that – he certainly gets a prize, anyway. And he gets another prize for expert lounging, as demonstrated in the photo below.

And while we're on the topic of lounging, I can't think of a better lounge food than muffins. Wouldn't you agree?

When I read "The Importance of Being Earnest" back in the day (I can't even remember which day right now) I nearly hurt myself laughing over the muffin scene. Never read it? That's a shame. Here are the highlights:

Jack:  How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.

Algernon:  Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner.  The butter would probably get on my cuffs.  One should always eat muffins quite calmly.  It is the only way to eat them.

Jack:  I say it’s perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.

Algernon:  When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me...  At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.  [Rising.]

Jack:  [Rising.]  Well, that is no reason why you should eat them all in that greedy way. [Takes muffins from Algernon.]

Algernon:  [Offering tea-cake.]  I wish you would have tea-cake instead.  I don’t like tea-cake. Jack, you are at the muffins again!  I wish you wouldn’t.  There are only two left.  [Takes them.]  I told you I was particularly fond of muffins.

Jack:  But I hate tea-cake.

Algernon:  Why on earth then do you allow tea-cake to be served up for your guests?  What ideas you have of hospitality!

In honor of Jack, Algernon and of course Oscar, I give you Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins with Lemon Sugar (bonus lemon sugar recipe below).

I will say this about these muffins:

1. Jack and Algernon would certainly argue over them.

2. They are WAY better than tea cake.

3. They are the perfect hand-held size for lounging.

4. They are easy to remove from your cuffs, should you get a little exuberant while eating them.

What You Need:
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2/3 cup lemon sugar (see recipe below)
2 large eggs, separated
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
Grated zest of two lemons
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

What To Do:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease 10 standard muffin cups with butter or non-stick spray or line with paper cup liners. I like using those silicone muffin molds.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed (or you can use a food processor), cream the butter and sugar (lemon sugar, if you are using it) until light and fluffy.

Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, poppy seeds, lemon zest and salt.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in 2 batches, alternating with the buttermilk, then the lemon juice and vanilla. Beat until smooth.

In a large bowl, using the mixer with CLEAN beaters, beat the egg whites just until they form soft peaks (which means they will curl over at the top and form a "wave").

Using a rubber spatula, fold the egg whites into the batter until blended.

Spoon the batter into each muffin cup, filling them 3/4 full. Sprinkle the tops of each muffin with some lemon sugar.

Bake until golden, dry and springy to the touch – 20-25 minutes. A toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin should come out clean.

Transfer to a wire rack (I actually don't own one of these so I remove one of my oven racks and use that instead) and let cool for 5 minutes.

Serve (with butter or lemon curd).

Bonus Lemon Sugar recipe:

* Both recipes from William-Sonoma Muffin Cookbook.


Be a Dumas, Put Lardo On Your Pizza

You knew bread week was coming back to pizza, right? Well, you should have.

We've been featuring a bunch of Meals on Reels posts – food related to movies. Well, I'd like to change media on you and switch to books.

I enjoy reading. When I was little, I would read books, sometimes over and over again. This is very geeky of me, I realize. Don't hold it against me, k? Unlike television, reading is quiet. I can turn off all the noise and let my imagination take over. And in books, you have a little more space to talk – about anything. Often this space is used to discuss or describe food.

Recently, I read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas whose flair for historical fiction is only outstripped by his fantastic hair:

This book delivers a healthy mix of themes, including hope, justice, revenge and – my personal favorite – ridiculous banter.

Consider my favorite quote from the book:

"I say that when a thing is beyond my comprehension, I stop thinking about it and pass on to something else. Is our supper ready?"

My kind of book. And supper is what we are concerned about here. As it turns out Dumas was a fan of pizza. In his book Le Corricolo he talks about the original Neapolitan pizza vendors (the food trucks of yore!), and notes the popular toppings: oil, lard, tallow, cheese.

I have recreated, to the best of my ability, that original Neapolitan lardo pizza. To describe my fondness for this pizza, and lardo in general, I must use another Dumas quote:

"...know you not that you are my sun by day, and my star by night? By my faith! I was in deepest darkness till you appeared and illuminated all." (from Queen Margot)

Here is the recipe for Nineteenth Century Lardo Pizza That Illuminates All:

What You Need:

1 recipe pizza dough – found here
1/4 pound thinly sliced lardo (I got mine from Salumeria Rosi on the UWS)
Olive oil (don't bother to measure)
Grated Peccorino cheese - about a cup, but feel free to use more
Fresh herbs: I used rosemary and thyme, but basil would be lovely as well.

What To Do:
Heat your pizza stone in your oven to 500 degrees for a half hour before you even think about placing dough in there.

Stretch out your pizza dough onto a pizza peel coated with semolina flour or cornmeal.

Drizzle your dough with olive oil.

Bake in the oven for about 8-10 minutes until your crust is turning golden and starts to bubble.

Remove the pizza crust from the oven with the pizza peel. Place it on a plate.

Garnish with sliced lardo, Peccorino cheese, and fresh herbs.

The heat from the hot pizza dough will melt the lardo and cheese and create a wonderful just-toasted effect.

Eat it immediately. With wine. Like so:

Lardo Pizza from John Iaciofano on Vimeo.


Speaking of wine, Dumas has this to say:

"So much the worse for those who fear wine, for it is because they have some bad thoughts which they are afraid the liquor will extract from their hearts."  (from the Count of Monte Cristo)

Oh, and if you are looking for the correct pronunciation of "Dumas", see this handy reference. John and I still call each other "dumas-es."